The Image of the Saviour Not Created with the Help of Hands

(Russia, nineteenth century)

Russia, Vetka; nineteenth century; 53.5 x 45.7 cm

Feast: first Sunday of Lent; August 16


Among the icons of Christ, the icons of the Saviour written “without the help of hands” (Greek ά χειροποίητός) are of fundamental importance for iconography, as they are attributed to Christ himself in both the West and the East. These icons are commonly named The Image not created with the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are also icons, however, whose description in Greek is TΟ ΑΓΙΟΝ ΜΑΝΔΙΛΗΟΝ, mandylion (the Greek word μανδίλιον probably comes from the Semitic word mindil – “handkerchief”). The Church Slavonic expression СВЯТЫЙ ОУБРУСЪ, holy cloth, has the same meaning, which can be encountered in Russian icons of this type.

For the defenders of the Holy Icons during the times of iconoclasm, the icon of this very type was one of the arguments in the struggle against iconoclasts. The argument goes as follows: Christ himself left us an icon of his face and thus the very depiction of Christ through the image is justified.

In the East, this icon is associated with the story of the leper King Abgar V from Edessa, who wrote a letter to Jesus asking him to come and heal him. The letter was delivered to him by the painter Ananias with an order to paint a portrait of Jesus. Although he did not succeed with this, the Lord wiped his face on a canvas on which His image remained miraculously imprinted, which he sent to Abgar. King Abgar was healed when he looked at Him.

This image was carefully preserved and revered in Edessa, the capital of a small kingdom between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The historian Evagrius, who lived in the sixth century, reports that one of King Abgar's successors returned to paganism. In order to protect the Lord's face from desecration, the bishop of the city had it walled up with a lighted lamp in a gap above the city gate. Later in the sixth century, when the Persians besieged the city, Bishop Eulalios saw the place where the painting was hidden in his dream. He had the gap opened and found a lighted lamp, a Holy face, and its imprint on one of the tiles. Both images were transferred to Constantinople in the tenth century, where they were worshipped as the palladium of the empire. After the looting of the city by the Crusaders in the thirteenth century, the icon was lost.

In the West, icons of this type appeared after the return of the Crusaders, who reported news of them. The origin can be traced back to the legends of St. Veronica, who wiped His face with a headscarf during the Saviour’s crucifixion on Golgotha. This name was probably created by shifting consonants in the words vera ikon (the true icon). The peculiarity of these “Veronica's canvases” is that they present Christ with a wreath of thorns (a crown), pointing to His suffering.

Despite the differences that exist among the icons of The image of the Saviour not created with the help of hands, certain specifics of this type can be seen. The iconographic basis of this icon is formed only by the head of the Saviour, without the depiction of the neck and shoulders. The hair flows freely on both sides over the ears, usually in two strands. Two to four strands of hair sometimes descend to the forehead in the middle of the head. The eyes are wide open and penetrating. The beard is divided into several strands, or there is the so-called “wet beard”, which is pointed and strangely stretched downwards. The head is surrounded by a nimbus, which is an integral part of every icon, as a symbol of holiness. Unlike the nimbus of the saints, the Saviour's nimbus is divided in the form of a cross, pointing to His sacrifice. In Byzantine depictions, the cross was adorned with precious stones. From the eleventh century, the Greek letters Ѡ Ѻ N began to appear on the visible sides of the cross, meaning “He who is,” which corresponds to the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament. God revealed this to Moses at Sinai in the burning bush, when He was asked by Moses: “What is His name? And God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:13-14) By placing the abbreviation of God's name in the iconography of Christ, in His nimbus, the truth about Christ is expressed, about His deity, who for us is the God of covenant as Yahweh was in the Old Testament. The name of Jesus Christ IC XC is written on the sides of the nimbus on the background.

The Description of the Icon

The icon depicts the face of Christ on a canvas decorated with flowers. The canvas is held by three angels at the top as well as on the sides. They have two letters A and Г in their aureoles as the abbreviation of the two Church Slavonic words Áнгелъ Гócподень - Angel of the Lord. There is a nimbus with an inscribed cross and the Greek letters Ѡ Ѻ N around the head of Christ. There are also the names of the angels in a similar icon. To the right of Christ’s face is the Holy Archangel Michael, to the left the Holy Archangel Gabriel and in the middle above Christ is the Holy Archangel Raphael. The Church Slavonic name of the icon – Нерукотворенный образъ Господень – The Image of our Lord not created with hands is in the upper corners of the icon. Christ is not looking directly, his look is instead to the left from the viewer’s point of view. His expression emanates peace and kindness.

There are three circles with three stories associated with this icon at the bottom. There is a scene on the right where Addai (the apostle Thaddeus) is showing the scarf to King Abgar and he recovers from leprosy without medication or herbs. In the middle circle, the scarf is depicted above the entrance gate to Edessa. The healed Abgar decided to accept the new faith and removed the pagan idol from the city gate, “before which everyone who wanted to enter the city had to bow”. He replaced the Greek god with the Image not created with the hands of the Saviour, and also had the image gilded and wrote in golden letters, “Christ God, whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:26) The third circle, depicting the Western tradition, features Christ on the Way of the Cross and Veronica who is handing him a scarf to wipe the blood from his tortured face.

In connection with the depicted saints on the sides of the icon, it is believed that the donor or orderer of the icon had it painted as a thank you for healing and protection, which is highlighted by the presence of the guardian angel and the doctor St. Cosmos (1.7). There is an icon of an unknown monk and Honourable Xenia (24.1) at the bottom, in all probability the personal patrons of the orderer. The golden background of the icon is decorated with plant ornaments.

The icon of the image of the Saviour created without hands is like the source of all icons. Every icon comes from it and is born in it.